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Lebanon dollarizes university tuition

Dario Sabaghi Beirut
July 13, 2022

By charging students tuition fees in US dollars instead of the local currency, access to higher education in Lebanon is in peril. But universities say it is their only way to survive amid a worsening economic crisis.

A general view shows the entrance of the medical center at the American University in Beirut, Lebanon
Private or public, all of Lebanon's universities are requesting US dollars for their programsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/W. Hamzeh

In 2018, Manar Sleiman moved from Baalbek to Beirut to study architecture at Notre Dame University there, thanks to a scholarship that covered 85% of her expenses.

Although the university where she chose to study wasn't the most expensive institution in Lebanon, keeping up financially was a challenge.

"I already struggled to pay tuition fees and expenses, and I had to sleep in the university dorm," the 22-year-old told DW.

But the economic crisis that began in late 2019 put her career as a student even more at risk. The economic crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic and the Beirut port blast drastically changed Sleiman's life.

"My mental health worsened because of the mix of these events. My colleagues and I feel drained, not encouraged to get an education, and not 100% present in the courses," she said. "Suddenly, we felt out of energy and cared less about studying."

An exchange dealer shows money at a currency exchange office as the value of the Lebanese currency against the US dollar continues to drop
Lebanon's meltdown cut the value of the local currency by more than 90%, generating a crisis that touches all sectors of societyImage: Houssam Shbaro/AA/picture alliance

Lebanon's economic crisis hit universities and students

Before the economic crisis, Sleiman paid 5,600 Lebanese liras per credit in the first semester at the university. However, today she pays 3.5 million Lebanese liras per credit. To complete her program, she must accumulate 172 credits.

Such a price increase in the education sector is not much different from what is happening in everyday life in the country.

While Lebanon's Central Administration of Statistics reported that the inflation rate surged to 211% in May 2022, most Lebanese salaries remain unchanged, leaving people struggling to cope in everyday life.

On top of that, the Lebanese economy is going through a dollarization process to align the local currency with the US dollar, currently exchanged at 29,000 Lebanese liras per US dollar.

To give a better idea of the increasing prices, consider that before the economic crisis, three liters of sunflower oil cost around 5,000 Lebanese liras. Today, that same amount of oil costs around 300,000 Lebanese liras.

Finding new resources to pay tuition fees

Except for the Lebanese University, all 32 universities in the country are private institutions. Although they have used lower rates to guarantee students access to higher education at affordable prices during the economic crisis, some are now asking for part or all of their tuition fees to be paid in US dollars.

Between March and May this year, Lebanese American University and the American University of Beirut, the highest-ranked Lebanese universities, announced they would only accept US dollar payments for tuition fees starting in fall 2022. 

Local news outlets reported that even the public Lebanese University will charge students in US dollars for specialized engineering master's degrees.

Universities justify the change by saying that they have to pay their own expenses in US dollars. Therefore, dollarization represented the only solution to keep universities alive and maintain quality standards.

But the general increase in tuition fees, plus having to pay some or all of it in US dollars, may leave hundreds of thousands of students out of higher education.

Dozens of Lebanese depositors protested throwing eggs and tomatoes on a number of private banks in central Beirut, demanding to have access to their deposits
Amid the currency crisis, the government imposed capital controls, drawing protest from people who feared for their moneyImage: Hussein Malla/AP Photo/picture alliance

Students anxious about the future

Maya Hamadeh, a 19-year-old multimedia journalism student at the Lebanese American University, is in a tough situation. She has a scholarship, other financial aid and a freelance job to maintain her studies. Still, she may not be able to afford to pay the new dollarized fees. 

"I live in Chouf, a district in Mount Lebanon. Transportation costs to my university in Beirut have been increasing since I started," she explained.

"Furthermore, the prices of dorms, restaurants and groceries are getting more expensive ... Some supermarkets and restaurants have their prices in actual dollars and not in Lebanese liras," she said.

Hamadeh says that the decision to charge tuition fees in dollars is unfair because it will jeopardize the future of many students. She herself is uncertain and anxious about her future at the university, and is seeking a solution.

"I am looking for donors, and I am trying to ask my university to increase my financial aid. If not, I won't be able to continue my studies. Or if I continue to study, I will have a huge debt that my family cannot afford," she said.

'We are like heroes'

Sarah Al Asmar, a 20-year-old political science and international affairs sophomore at the Lebanese American University and a representative on the student council there, told DW that the economic crisis impacted most students because their parents are not paid in US dollars. But even if they were paid in dollars, it is often not enough to cover bills, food or other necessities.

"I pay around $20,000 [€19,700] a year. The dollarization is going to be challenging for me. However, the university promised it would help us with financial aid and that no one would have to leave the university," she said.

Teya Abou Zour, a 20-year-old student at the same university and vice-president of the student council, told DW that being a student amid the economic crisis was a horrible experience. 

"We face many challenges because we cannot avoid what is happening around us," Zour said. "Focusing on our studies amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis was hard. But we had the dedication and tried to create our own safe space to study despite the ups and downs," she said. "We are like heroes."

"We know that education is the only thing that can help to get out of what is happening."

On the verge of dropping out 

Despite the advantages of university education, many students may drop out if they can't pay the new tuition fees.

Sleiman, who is also president of the Secular Club at Notre Dame University in Beirut and a member of MADA, a student-led political network, says she lost the scholarship that allowed her to study at the school.

"I couldn't maintain the grade point average because my degree is very demanding and tough. The past year was challenging because tuition fees increased, and the scholarship wasn't enough to cover my expenses. Furthermore, since the pandemic started, we attended classes through e-learning, so we haven't been on campus."

Rather than dropping out of school, some students may try to switch to other, more affordable universities. However, many think other universities could also soon require US dollars for their tuition fees. 

This leaves students in a limbo of uncertainties and adds anxiety to their lives — lives already severely hit by an economic crisis.

"Nothing is guaranteed. Students don't know which university they could switch to. They are very afraid about what the future will be," Zour concluded.

Edited by: Tim Rooks